Off-season Primer: NFC West
The NFC West has been among the most competitive divisions in the NFL over the last few seasons, but the pecking order could be changing. The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have had the league's best rivalry since Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll renewed their old Pac-10 tete-a-tete starting in 2011 -- but with Harbaugh's engineered departure from San Francisco back to the NCAA, the ground has shifted beneath the division's feet. The Arizona Cardinals dashed out to an 8-1 record before their quarterback situation -- and then their season -- went up in smoke, and the St. Louis Rams have been assembling a dominant defense over the last few years. Seattle made it to the Super Bowl for the second straight season, and San Francisco the year before that, and though NFC West entrants are 1-2 in those games, it's emblematic of the toughness of the West that another team from this foursome could be suiting up in Santa Clara, Calif., for Super Bowl 50.
That team probably won't be the 49ers, whose off-season purge of a high-caliber coaching staff in favor of men who will snap to and follow the orders of CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke put them in the crosshairs of every fan and analyst. And it may not be the Seahawks again, unless they can overcome some serious injury issues. And it won't be the Cardinals or the Rams unless their quarterback scenarios are locked up. One thing's for sure, though -- the NFC West will remain as fascinating as ever.
• Key free agents: RB Jonathan Dwyer, TE Rob Housler, OG Paul Fanaika, DT Tommy Kelly, DT Dan Williams, OLB John Abraham, OLB Sam Acho, LB Marcus Benard, LB Larry Foote, CB Antonio Cromartie, LS Mike Leach
• Players team needs to bring back: Kelly is worth bringing back; he was really good in sub-packages as the Cardinals scrambled to replace the injured Darnell Dockett. The 37-year-old Abraham is undecided about his football future, but given his concussion history, he might be best off retiring. Foote could be part of the team's coaching staff if he retires. Dan Williams might be the top priority on this list, though -- he had an outstanding season as the team's nose tackle. If Williams isn't No. 1 on Arizona's list, then Cromartie might be. He was outstanding on a one-year, prove-it deal, and though he can be inconsistent, new defensive coordinator James Bettcher would certainly benefit from his presence. Cromartie was actually more effective than Patrick Peterson last season, though Peterson generally got the tougher matchups.
• Positions in need of improvement: Whatever the Cardinals do in the offseason, they'll have to address Larry Fitzgerald's contract situation before an $8 million roster bonus comes due in March -- the veteran has a $23 million cap hit, but both sides seem open to restructuring. And there's the matter of Carson Palmer's future -- the quarterback signed a four-year, $58.5 million extension in November of 2014, but shoulder, ACL and meniscus issues limited him to six games last season. The team will either need to develop backups Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley, or look for help at that position -- Palmer's late-season injury probably cost Arizona a division title. If Arizona lets Fitzgerald go, there's a need for depth at the receiver position, and the running back position is undefined as well -- Andre Ellington is the lead back, but he hasn't yet shown that he can be an every-down threat. On defense, there's definitely a need at the inside linebacker position -- with Foote transitioning out of the game and Kevin Minter showing limitations, this defense really needs 'backers who can move.
St. Louis Rams
• Players team needs to bring back: Hill is a league-average journeyman who can and should be replaced at the top of the position group. Britt, whose best seasons have come under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee and St. Louis, has the potential to be an explosive playmaker if he keeps his head on straight -- the Rams should balance risk and reward accordingly. Kendricks is a good blocker and red-zone threat, and unless the Rams want to select two or three more receivers in the draft, they should hold on to the ones who have succeeded for them. Barksdale and Joseph are decent spot-fillers at this point (Joseph used to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player), but the team should look to do better overall on the line.
• Positions in need of improvement: The Rams have about $27 million in 2015 cap space tied up in the contracts of quarterback Sam Bradford and left tackle Jake Long, and both players will be released if they don't renegotiate -- Long is probably a goner either way. Whatever the Rams do with Bradford and Hill, it's clear that they need better options at the quarterback position, because they're set up very well at so many other spots. Long's injury situation put Greg Robinson at left tackle before the team would have preferred, but he developed pretty well as the season progressed. The rest of the line could use improvement, and the receiver group is still up in the air. Overall, however, this franchise is on hold from a division success perspective until a top-tier quarterback can be acquired and developed.
San Francisco 49ers
• Key free agents: QB Blaine Gabbert, QB Josh Johnson, RB Frank Gore, RB Alfonso Smith, RB Phillip Tanner, WR Michael Crabtree, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Kassim Osgood, TE Garrett Celek, OG Mike Iupati, DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, LS Kyle Nelson, OLB Dan Skuta, OLB Desmond Bishop, ILB Michael Wilhoite, CB Chris Cook, CB Perrish Cox, CB Chris Culliver, CB Cameron Fuller, S Chance Casey, S Bubba Ventrone
• Players team needs to bring back: Crabtree is the big name here -- he's been a relative disappointment over the last two seasons, and seems likely to move on to a new situation. Gore, one of the more indispensable players in franchise history (and that's saying a lot), beat all the odds last year and rushed for more than 1,100 yards for the fourth straight season. If he comes back, it would likely be on a short deal. He should be able to find better prospects elsewhere. Iupati, the team's first-round pick in 2010, had perhaps his worst season to date in 2014, allowing seven sacks, including five in the last six games. Iupati was dealing with injuries last season and could also be moving along. Culliver might be the most desirable player on this list -- for all his recent off-field issues, he actually had a good season in 2014.
• Positions in need of improvement: You mean, other than head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator? And maybe general manager and CEO? Well, there's the fact that Colin Kaepernick needs reliable receivers and an offensive line that will protect him consistently -- outside of left tackle Joe Staley, there are issues in that department. The defensive line will struggle with Ray McDonald gone and Aldon Smith continuing to fight legal problems, not to mention Justin Smith's mortality. The team will hope to have the best of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis at inside linebacker, but Willis missed 10 games last season with a toe injury, and Bowman missed the entire 2014 season with a serious knee injury. This could be the year that several sub-par drafts in a row come back to bite the franchise, and the new coaching staff doesn't appear to be a patch on the old one.
• Key free agents: QB Tarvaris Jackson, FB Will Tukuafu, WR Bryan Walters, WR Ricardo Lockette, TE Tony Moeaki. TE Anthony McCoy, OG James Carpenter, DE Demarcus Dobbs, DT Kevin Williams, OLB Malcolm Smith, OLB O'Brien Schofield, LB Mike Morgan, CB Byron Maxwell, S Deshawn Shead, S Jeron Johnson, LS Clint Gresham
• Players team needs to bring back: The Seahawks don't have very many free agents to deal with, which leaves them with two goals for the 2015 offseason: signing quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Bobby Wagner to long-term extensions. The main free agent on the market is Maxwell, who's played pretty well in the Legion of Boom secondary, but could very well get big money from another team looking to replicate that magic. Carpenter's a possibility to come back; he gave up just one sack at left guard in 1,028 snaps last season. Lockette, Williams, Smith and Schofield are good roleplayers.
• Positions in need of improvement: As weird as it sounds, that aforementioned secondary could be a problem in 2015 -- Maxwell could leave for a big contract elsewhere, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas will all be recovering from injuries, and while they could all be ready for the regular season, now would be a good time to think about depth. Besides that, and more than anything, the Seahawks need a big, fast receiver who can make contested catches. There's also a need along the offensive line, and an upgrade at tight end would be good, as much as Seattle uses two-tight end sets. Finally, a front office that is always looking for additional pass-rushers could once again use a couple more.